A frequent flier's views on flying and travel

Flight For Safety

A few months ago I was lucky enough to read the novel “Flight for Control” by Karlene Petitt about the fictional fight for control of a major US airline, and the human factors and issues seen from the perspective of a real airline pilot.

In her newest novel, “Flight for Safety” Ms. Petitt examines in very painful detail the implications and consequences of recent improvements in the safety of flying through the increased use of automation. First of all, nobody would ever argue that improved automation is a ‘bad’ thing. There are major in-flight safety advantages in having good software running on these planes, and the savings in fuel economy by the use of these systems is anything but trivial.

But in “Flight for Safety” Karlene dares to ask; Have we gone too far?

As a non-pilot, I find it easier to think about this issue in terms of something I am more familiar with. Suppose we jump ahead 25 years, to a time when automobiles are much more automated than they are now. You get in a car, type in a destination, and the car proceeds to drive itself. Taking turns, merging with traffic, stopping at lights. Doing all the normal operating functions that we would normally perform. In this future, we become dependent on this automation.

Now imagine its 9 PM on a snowy night up in the mountains. Your 22 year old grandson and his wife are driving home after long day of skiing, and the auto drive function in his car stops working. Do you think he has enough experience to actually drive the car out of the mountains, in the snow, when the vast majority of his driving ‘experience’ has been sitting behind the wheel while the car drove itself?

Sure he took the required “driver safety” classes, and can manually drive a car through construction areas or in the parking lot of the local WalMart where the auto-drive disengages itself. But how skilled is he really?

So, transfer this question to aviation. Are pilots flying today as safe as they could be? Is the use of automation leading to an over-reliance on that same automation, so much so that it is creating a safety risk?

Did a reliance on automation (and a lack of sleep) affect what happened to Air France flight 447 over the Atlantic? “…caused the autopilot to disconnect, after which the crew reacted incorrectly and ultimately led the aircraft to an aerodynamic stall from which they did not recover” (BEA final report)

Are pilots without enough hands-on flight time less capable of handling the unexpected, like on Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco? “Asiana’s automation policy emphasized the full use of all automation and did not encourage manual flight during line operations” (NTSB)

Consider QF32 where an uncontained engine failure damaged so many systems that cockpit displays were wrong, the flight computers were giving incorrect information, and w/o hands-on piloting all souls would have perished. “These are not skills that anyone is born with nor taught nor learned overnight or by casual study” (CASA – Australia)

Or TransAsia GE235 in Taiwan where the cockpit crew shut of the functioning engine, instead of the failing one? “the flight data indicated the crew mistakenly switched off the wrong engine” (China News)

Update  – AirAsia QZ8501 Rudder failure ... “The way pilots responded to a technical malfunction resulted in the crash of an AirAsia flight into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board”  (CNN) 

Update – Qantas QF72 Electronics malfunction; A serious flight system automation failure that “challenges the notion that technology is near fail-safe and superior to pilots’ frailties“.  (Sydney Morning Herald)

Update – Lion Air JT610 System fault; “pilots failed to recognize what was happening and follow the known procedure for countering the incorrect activation of an automated safety system” (Chicago Times)

Are there others accidents out there? Will there be more? Probably… Yes

Have we crossed, or are we now in danger of crossing, the dividing line between cost savings and safety in relying too much on automation? How can future pilots maintain their skills, if when they fly everything is run by automation?

This book is going to force your brain to think in a new way. And as a very frequent passenger, this subject is something that will not leave my mind anytime soon. I only hope that the FAA/DOT and all the airlines are thinking as carefully about our future safety as Karlene is.


If you are interested in “Flight For Control”, please see “A Blog about a book” at or jump to the link at: FlightForControl

For Karlene’s website, scroll down this page a bit further to Flight to Success in the Blogs I Follow.


5 comments on “Flight For Safety

  1. capnaux
    February 25, 2014

    Thanks for the good review, Paxview! And great analogy with the “future car!”

    Very poignant questions today, for both us as a society, and we as airline pilots. Personally, I made it a point to start “turning off the magic and flying” my A320 for just that reason!

    I’ll be reviewing Ms. Petitt’s work on my blog this week as well. Gonna RT your review–great job!

    Cap’n Eric


  2. liborsmolik
    February 26, 2014

    Yea, good article. I very much agree!

    I’m just waiting for this book to be delivered so I’m looking forward to read it even more!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bill Palmer
    February 26, 2014

    Yes, Great future car analogy.
    I too, like Aux, click it all off – including the flight directors, and get some raised eyebrows as a result. I know Karlene is on the same page.


  4. Well written article. Cheers!


  5. Pingback: Flight for Sanity (a novel) | paxview

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